Ken's Review: Smart People - One of the Best Films of the Year

April 14, 2008

There are some movies that take me a bit to really think about and ponder over. That was the case with There Will Be Blood. It wasn't until the morning after that it had really sunk in and made its impact. Then there are the films that grab me and excite me the second the credits start rolling. That's my favorite feeling. The feeling of loving a film so much the moment it is over that you want to stay for the next showing because you don't want the feeling to end. I felt that once already this year after watching In Bruges. Thankfully I didn't have to wait too long to feel it again - this time with Smart People.

Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a literature professor at the local university who is perceived by his students as a pompous self-absorbed jerk. He is father to Vanessa Wetherhold (Ellen Page), an extremely smart self-absorbed student hell bent on being the best in everything, as well as James (Ashton Holmes), a student at the same university that he teaches at. Due to falling from a security fence and a stress-related seizure, Lawrence meets Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) who he ends up becoming romantically interested in. Unfortunately for Lawrence, he is unable to drive and ends up having to take in his dead beat adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) to chauffeur him around town. Personality clashes and relationship problems turn into life changing experiences that everyone is able to learn from.

Lawrence and adopted brother Chuck stop by a furniture store for a quick break in a scene from Smart People.Smart People Review

What really caught me off guard were the performances. Going into it I thought I had all of the actors figured out. I imagined Dennis Quaid being the same as always - good but never that great. I pictured Ellen Page as being the exact same character from Juno - quick to respond with clever little comments. Sarah Jessica Parker never brings much range to the table anyway and I didn't expect anything different in Smart People. Thomas Hayden Church, although not amazing in Spider-Man 3, has really impressed me lately in films like Spanglish and Sideways. He was really the only one I thought would steal the show.

Half-way thorough the film I was amazed with how wrong my assumptions turned out to be. Dennis Quaid blew me away with his devotion to his character. Never once did he break the appearance of a socially dysfunctional, arrogant college professor. He was able to say so much about his character through his performance alone. This is the mark of a truly great actor. I'm just sad it has taken this long to get this out of someone I have always really liked. Perhaps this is a new start for Quiad, although I don't think the upcoming G.I. Joe, in which he plays General Hawk, will require the same devotion to character that Smart People did. I definitely think this was the best performance of Quaid's career.

From what I gather, Ellen Page actually filmed Smart People before Juno. I didn't know this until after I saw it, but it makes a lot of sense. This is not the same character we see in Juno, although there are similarities. It isn't the same funny, quirky role that she played as the teenage pregnant girl. Instead, she is an extremely smart and boring girl who unfortunately has become a clone of her father. She lacks social skills and any sense of fun, unlike her character Juno. Yes, the way she delivers some lines reminds me a bit of Juno but that really can't be helped since it is the same actress. Her personality will always shine and my reservations of whether or not she could play anything other then Juno have definitely been taken away.

Not much needs to be said about Thomas Hayden Church and Sarah Jessica Parker. Based off of this film and Church's few previous ones, he has proven to be an actor that I will go see no matter the movie. Parker was better in this then most anything else I've seen her in. She thankfully showed a bit more range, portraying a lot through her performance like Quaid. She was good but I wouldn't say great - surprisingly better - would be the best way to put it.

The always charming Ellen Page takes a step away from the character of Juno in Smart People.Smart People Review

Mention must be made of the performance of young actor and personal friend Paul Huber, who is the start of all the problems for the Wetherhold family. Huber plays a College student named Ben Onufrey who works for campus security in charge of manning the impound lot. At the very beginning of the film, Lawrence's car get impounded for a parking violation. He tries to get it out but is stopped by Onufrey who refuses to let him have it until the fine is paid. Not taking no for an answer, Lawrence climbs the fence and falls injuring himself, which ultimately leads to meeting Parker and causing Church to have to move in. Huber makes another appearance later in the film and was hilarious. I really hope we get to see this young actor make some more appearances in other upcoming movies.

More than anything this is a film about its characters. It is a deep look into a family that is drowning in the academic world. The catalyst for change is the adopted brother, who Church portrays, that is completely different from everyone else. He challenges them to have fun and take risks. He fights against their planned out, boring existence by introducing chaos and unpredictability. Although he definitely isn't aware that he is the bringer of change, he turns out to be one none the less.

The beauty of this movie is how subtle everything is. From its humor to the character development, everything takes a bit of thought from the audience to really make an impact. You can't just coast by in this film and expect everything to be explained step-by-step. All the pieces are there for us to understand the characters, but the writers and director left it up to us to put together. We aren't given much of the past history of the family, but through each actors' performances we can understand so much about why they are the way they are. The audience should be able to understand why Quaid is so distant from everyone, why Page has no friends and is protective of her father, and why Quaid's son James doesn't like anyone. Like the title, this is a film for smart people who want to think through a movie instead of just watch it.

Tying with In Bruges and Assassination of a High School President, Smart People has become one of my favorite films of 2008. Incredible acting, a wonderfully complex story, and a great soundtrack made this an amazing film. I would whole-heartedly recommend this to anyone that wants to see a heart warming story of a family that loves each other but still has problems. I would never say it is a depressing movie, but instead a story filled with realism. These are characters who have hope to better themselves instead of making it seem like they could never become perfect. Rush out to see this one, definitely the best film in theaters right now.

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Is it still April 1st?

Andrew Wickliffe on Apr 14, 2008


I was kind of waiting for Ken's review for this one, at least after reading the Guest Review and being disappointed, I almost decided not to see it, now I will, thanks Ken.

Hermond on Apr 14, 2008


With a score of 9.5/10 I'd expect it to be your favorite movie of the decade. It was a long time ago I saw a movie worth that high a score. I haven't read your review yet, though, but I will.

Korinthian on Apr 14, 2008


Korinthian - Favorite movie of the decade? nah. I actually gave 3 movies from last year 10 out of 10. This was just a great movie that I didn't have ANY problems with. Worth every penny. Let me know what you think if you see it.

Ken Evans on Apr 14, 2008


I would have to agree, a solid film but not a 9.5 for me. I thought Ellen Page was Juno number 2 though. She will get typecasted quickly if she is not careful.

Atomic Popcorn on Apr 14, 2008


Sounds like you are riding a bit high on the scale ever, or perhaps we just think differently. I'd scale the best movie I'd ever seen "10" and the worst I had ever seen "1". I think it is vital to understand how a reviewer grades something. If a movie got a "10" from someone that normally scores "best movie of the year" with 7-8 It would be more likely that I'd check it out than if it was rated max by someone who always rate 8+. Also, sorry about the quotation marks, I got annoying by reading what I wrote, but I'm too lazy to change.

Korinthian on Apr 14, 2008


this film might've warranted a 9.5, if the script was original, and didn't take crib notes from every indie dysfunctional family movie ever. in every turn, it gives into romantic comedy conventions, the plot and characters lack any thoughtful imagination (dopplegangers of all indie dysfunctional family movies). this movie lacks any groundbreaking human insights, regardless of it's attempts to throw a poignant detail or a character-defining turn of phrase. some lines succeed and are funny and witty, and the performances are good (although i will never consider sarah jessica parker good), but if this movie actually gets a 9.5/10, then Shazaam and Gigli and that Justin and Kelly movie deserve to get 5/10. other movies have done what this movie attempts to do with more comedy, drama, consistency, human insight and perception, and most importantly, writing.

danny h. on Apr 14, 2008


Thank you danny h. for hitting up a few points on this film. I am going out and saying that this is a terrible film that lacks any imagination outside of the typical Sundance dysfunctional film cliche. I am not familiar with the writer, though I am aware he is a novelist. Looking at this film, I suspect he shoulf stick to his given profession, which for his sake I hope he is better at than screenwriting. This is amateur hour all the way. Ken, I suspect that a big reason that you give this film such high regards is because you have a "personal friend" in the film. Though his character is there at the inciting incident in the film, he has little more to do with the whole film. Even his later line is a throwaway joke. Why not single out other minor characters from other films at this rate. How about the trailer park receptionist in "No Country for Old Men" or any other person who told a joke in a film. Fine if you want to support a buddy and you are happy to see them work, but let's not make more of what they do just yet.

Charlie on Apr 14, 2008


I think from now on I'll skip any movie you review higher then 7 and defiantly see anything you give lower then a 3, it seems like whatever you write I feel the complete opposite, different tastes I guess, thanks tho.

Richard on Apr 14, 2008


Charlie - I'm a bit offended that you think I would grade a movie so highly just because I had a friend in the film. As I already stated in my review, I thought he did an excellent job and played the character that got the ball rolling for the entire story. Whether or not you think I played him up more then he should have been is fine. I stick with what I said in my review. In regards to the film itself. I LOVED IT! If you want to lump it in with dysfunctional family films than that's fine because that's exactly the kind of film it is. However, this being a dysfunctional family film, I thought it had a nice refreshing take on them. This isn't like The Family Stone or The Royal Tenenbaums where the characters are dysfunctional because they grew up that way. Smart People is about a family member that had died and the ramifications that had on the personalties of the rest of the family. This had more realism and authenticity then just about any dysfunctional family film I have seen.

Ken Evans on Apr 14, 2008


Charlie - I loved this film too and I did NOT have any friends with it. That's not the case - it's a great movie. Just despite he had a friend in it doesn't mean anything. It sounds like you're trying to latch on any scapegoat you can find because you did NOT like it... Just accept that there are differences of opinion!

Alex Billington on Apr 14, 2008


I was debating whether or not I truly wanted to go see this movie in theathers or not. This review sealed the deal for me. Thank you sir.

Anthony on Apr 14, 2008


Thanks for the review Ken (and Alex!). I was on the fence about this one since most of the reviews are right down the middle. But I trust your taste. And I do like the cast a great deal. I hope to catch this soon. Keep up the great site!

Rob on Apr 14, 2008


First off, Ken: Good sticking to your guns. I'm just saying you might be slanted in this case. The people that we call friends are very near and dear to us and we want to be the support on the sideline. Perhaps it is not the main reason you loved this film as much as you did, but the fact that the info appears late in your review makes it feel especially like it was a boost to him. He only had about two minutes (if that) of screen time, roughly a bit more than two percent of the film. I chuckled slightly as his douchebag line, but I don't think a half dozen lines are worth praising whole works. These people were doomed from the start. You argue that this is a more authentic one, but I still find them to be ripping off characters from other films or working in cliches. Dennis Quaid is essentially the burnout character Michael Douglas played in Wonder Boys. Ellen Page is a stereotype: the snobby young Republican who is obsessed with perfection. Honestly, when they make a character in a film a young Republican, they are trying to stereotype them into someone you are not supposed to like, who you know by the word that they are the bad person. THomas Haden Church, a fine actor given a nothing part, is more of a stoner variation on the Jack character from Sideways. The relationship that is sparked with him and Ellen Page is completely unneeded and the creepiness of it is not even explored. They even make Church adopted to not raise any extra eyebrows, definitely a copout. You brought up Royal Tenenbaums which had a similar storyline in it but put it to its maximum potential and it worked. Here it never gets explored. Alex, I don't understand your accusation of me using a scapegoat to say I don't like the movie. If I were using it as a scapegoat, that would mean I have no evidence to back it up. I have a few notes listed above and several more thoughts on the subject. I just felt the review was compromised in a manner. Ken wouldn't be the first critic with this issue. In the famous film book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskund notes how Pauline Kael was good friends with several major fiigures in Hollywood who she worked for in a period in the 1970s. As you must know, Kael was a venomous film critic, but she had no problem lavishing praise on the people she had befriended. The author implies that Ms. Kael compromised herself, especially considering she had been brutally honest in the past. Your last remark is also troubling me. You say that I should respect a difference of opinion, but this is a bit of a weak arguement. You want me to respect the difference of YOUR opinion, but you in turn would have to respect MY opinion. This leads me to ask, "Why respect opinions?" Did we get into movies to debate and argue? Is it fun to agree all the time? You didn't create this debate forum for agreement. It's for discussion and I say we discuss.

Charlie on Apr 14, 2008


Ellen Page looks stunning in this one.

twispious on Apr 15, 2008


I agree with you and feel this movie was had great movie casting"> especially ellen page who was so different in this then in Juno

Great Movie Casting on Apr 15, 2008


I agree with you and feel this movie was had great movie casting especially ellen page who was so different in this then in Juno

Great Movie Casting on Apr 15, 2008


Ellen Page is always stunning, even with a paper bag over her head. No I have not seen this movie yet but, if I do it will be to see Ms. Page.

byzinski on Apr 18, 2008

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